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Scientist of the Year Notable: Hans Rosling

His mission: To enlist hard data in the global war on poverty and disease.

By Jennifer Barone
Dec 6, 2007 6:00 AMApr 12, 2023 1:51 PM


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Hans Rosling knows that statistics can change the world—if he can only get the right people to pay attention to them. To make that happen, he has spearheaded the development of Trend-alyzer, a software package that sends stolid data into fluid motion by creating animations of economic, social, and health statistics evolving through time. Nations race across the screen through decades of progress in a few seconds, allowing undetected trends and buried connections to leap out at viewers. The dramatic animations are already changing the perspectives of political leaders, entrepreneurs, and activists around the globe.

Rosling’s passion for statistics was born in his early career as a physician in Mozambique, where he discovered a new paralytic disease called konzo. By carefully sifting through medical data from the afflicted regions, he identified malnutrition and inadequately processed cassava—a tuber used as food in tropical countries—as the cause of the disease, allowing for prevention through better food preparation. In March, Trendalyzer was acquired by Google, which will make it freely accessible to a global audience. Rosling’s latest mission is to make publicly funded health, social, and economic statistics from the United Nations and governments freely available as well. Combining that information with the software needed to interpret it, he contends, will encourage entrepreneurship and drive public policies that combat poverty and disease. Due in part to his advocacy, the U.N. recently opened its online global database free of charge. DISCOVER spoke with Rosling—professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and a 20-year veteran researcher of disease, poverty, and hunger in Africa—about how he set statistics loose on the world stage, what he has learned from his decades studying global development, and why he is obsessed with making public data truly public.

You spent 20 years studying disease, hunger, and poverty in Africa. How did that shape your view of economic development?

I’ve done a lot of practical anthropology, living in villages with people and realizing how difficult it is to get out of poverty. When in poverty, people use their skill to avoid hunger. They can’t use it for progress. To get away from poverty, you need several things at the same time: school, health, and infrastructure—those are the public investments. And on the other side, you need market opportunities, information, employment, and human rights.

What inspired you to create statistical software rather than staying focused on your public-health research?

While teaching a course on global development at Uppsala University in Sweden, I realized our students didn’t have a fact-based worldview. They talked about “we” and “them.” They thought there were two groups of countries: the Western world, with small families and long lives, and the third world, with large families and short lives. I explained that we have a continuum of life conditions in the world—we can’t put countries into two groups. But when I showed them graphs of this [with time as one axis], it didn’t impact them.

Then in 1994, I got the idea to show each country as a bubble, with economic factors on one axis and child survival on the other. My son started writing the code that made the bubbles move through time, and his wife joined as designer. When you show time as an x-axis, you violate the way we think. But when you show time as graphic movement, as animation, people suddenly understand. Our animation really got the students’ attention. Show the income distribution of the United States and China over time, and in 15 to 20 seconds I can make people understand things that textbooks and years of study haven’t. This is a discovery in perceptional psychology, of how to show trends in society.

Who will use Trendalyzer?

So far, we have had a major hit with two target groups: children under 12 and heads of state. What they have in common is that you have only 5 to 10 seconds to impress them. Leaders at very high levels in government were ignorant, but they were very interested in learning. This software came at a point when it was needed. The cold war is over, globalization is here; everyone wants to understand what is happening with the world. It’s difficult to predict who will use any new technology.

Why do you consider it so crucial to make health and economic data from public agencies and governments accessible to all?

Data allow your political judgments to be based on fact, to the extent that numbers describe realities. In Mexico, the government decided that every village with more than a certain poverty rate and infant mortality level should get electricity. The statistical agency was told to identify these villages, which they did. But they also showed that the villages were so remote, up in the mountains, that if you were going to put electricity there, you might as well also put it in the two or three neighboring villages. Once you run electricity up the mountain, it makes economic sense to cover everyone. For very little additional cost, the whole area could have it.

Without data, you could argue in parliament about which villages should get electricity. But by analyzing the data, the government statistician shaped policy into being more cost-effective and causing less friction. That’s just one example. Good analysis is very useful when you want to convert a political decision into an investment. It can also go the other way and drive policy. You need to show where children are dying in the United States—in Appalachia and the southern and rural areas—so the public can make a serious decision about it: Do we want Appalachia to have a higher child mortality than Malaysia?

Statistics from the U.N. and government agencies are readily available for purchase, but you argue strongly for dropping fees completely. Why is this so important?

Public statistics are owned by taxpayers. These data, which cost about $10 billion in tax money to collect, belong to everyone. And governments are selling them. The World Bank gets statistics for free from the world. They put them together and sell them back to the world for $275 per copy. This hampers entrepreneurs, activists, and politicians from getting access to public statistics. The money is not the only cost: It is cumbersome to pay, it takes time to get the data, and you are not allowed to make the data available to others.

Businesses realize that statistics should be free. And there is very strong support from middle-income countries—China, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico. They desperately need statistics because their countries are changing so rapidly and they want to trade. Their entrepreneurs can’t afford to pay for data.

What is the most surprising thing about viewing global progress through Trendalyzer software, as compared with looking at the more familiar charts and tables of economic data?

Western Europe and the United States have a stagnant view of the rest of the world. It’s like the view England used to have of the United States when it was a colony. But the United States emerged as the world’s power. Now Asia is regaining its position as the world’s power. The world will be normal again; it will be an Asian world, as it always was except for these last thousand years. They are working like hell to make that happen, whereas we are consuming like hell. But because of our preconceived ideas, we don’t fully understand these global trends until we look at the data.

The concept of the Western world and the developing world is the main obstacle to understanding. Most people know only two types of countries, Western and third world, whereas I know 200 types of countries. I know each country’s gross national product, educational level, child mortality, main export products, and so on. We have a continuum of life conditions in the world. The life expectancy in Vietnam today is the same as it was in the United States in 1975. That made Al Gore jump onto the stage and say: “I didn’t know that. I didn’t have the slightest idea.” And that was Al Gore—you can imagine other politicians.

Now that Google has taken over the development of Trendalyzer, what is your next project?

An initiative called Beyond MDG (Beyond the Millennium Development Goals). We want to know: How can we better measure and communicate the conditions of the poorest 1 to 2 billion people in the world? Instead of talking about the third world or developing countries, we’re talking about these specific fellow human beings. Compared with the burden of disease, disasters are a minor health problem. The tsunami in the Indian Ocean caused the equivalent of one month of children’s pneumonia deaths in the world. There is a tsunami every month that could be cured by penicillin, for which there are no images and no reporting.

What are the biggest challenges in global health and poverty right now?

The 1 to 2 billion poorest in the world, who don’t have food for the day, suffer from the worst disease: globalization deficiency. The way globalization is occurring could be much better, but the worst thing is not being part of it. For those people, we need to support good civil societies and governments. We need to make public investments and private markets work together. We also need fair trade. You can’t have one country subsidize produce that is a matter of life and death for another country. If Niger can export its cotton and grow its economy, that’s much better than giving it aid.

But when we give economic aid, what is the best way to do it?

First, it must be steady. Listen to serious politicians from the poorest countries, and they say that they cannot implement necessary programs with aid because it is so unpredictable. Suddenly and without warning, it would be taken away. Second, it must be oriented toward the needs of the poor, not the perceptions of the rich. Jeffrey Sachs did a calculation that basic health care in Africa costs $30. You have a person there with $10, you give him $2, and then you ask why it doesn’t work. We have to be realistic.

You also talk about developing clear goals and means for development. Can you explain that concept?

The goals are paradise. Get the means in order, and the goals will follow. We know kids should go to school—make it possible. Subsidize teacher salaries steadily. I asked a child in Africa, “How do you stay so healthy?” She replied, “Grandmother can read.” Getting girls into school—we think that makes a girl healthier five years later. What really matters is that it makes her a better grandmother 45 years later. Support governments that want to put law and order in their countries. If they aren’t brutal, support them. We can’t get into nitty-gritty detail with the policies of other countries. Focus on the means, and let the goals come when they come.

When it comes to eliminating poverty, you say, “The seemingly impossible is possible.” What makes you so optimistic?

Length of life is improving. Today we take for granted that death belongs to old age. We have controlled the major diseases, and now life expectancy is up to 70 or 80 years in Asia, the Arab world, and most of Latin America. There are places where you still have low life expectancy, but overall there has been a major change. And people of all religions accept family planning. They have two to three children per family. Twenty-five years ago, the global agenda was the population explosion. Now it’s solved. Education is there. We have a higher and higher proportion of children who go to school and become a part of the modern world. And we have economic growth in the world, on average, so we can supply our material needs much better than in the past. A good world for everyone is not a given, but it’s within our reach.

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